Reformed to Death
Leon J. Podles on the Future of Feminized Liberal Judaism
Jews have for millennia felt the temptation to be like other peoples, to be like the nations, to have gods they can see and touch, to have a king, not to stand out and be despised by the Gentiles. It is a temptation, because God has chosen them to be set apart from all other nations, to be his holy people, for his own mysterious purposes, until the time comes when the Messiah shall unite the Gentiles and the Jews in their historical reality. Until that time, assimilation is a temptation—and a temptation that will lead to the disappearance of the Jews who want to become like Gentiles.
Over the past two centuries, some Jews have been tempted to imitate liberal Protestantism in abandoning the unique role of the male, especially of the father. Liberal Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist) has succeeded in doing this, and thus, like liberal Protestantism, liberal Judaism is disappearing.
Steps to Jewish Manhood
Until the nineteenth century, all Judaism was what is now called Orthodox Judaism, and the duties of Judaism, the mitzvot, were primarily a matter for men. Jewish men thank God daily in the three brochos that culminate in the she lo asani isha prayer for not having been created a slave, a Gentile, or a woman—all of whom are exempted from the performance of all the commandments of the law. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern era, women, freed from the full burden of the law, therefore took care of the children and ran family businesses. They learned the local languages, while the men, who spoke Yiddish and read Hebrew, devoted themselves to the study of the Talmud and the Torah. The ideal Jewish husband was thus both a scholar and a mensch, a gentleman, who would also be a good father.
In addition to circumcision, brit milah, which they inherited from antiquity, Ashkenazi Jews developed other rituals to strengthen the relationship of males and Judaism. A rite called halaqah in Hebrew and upsherin in Yiddish marks the boy when he is three years old and has his first haircut. It is a first step to manhood. When the boy begins to study the Torah, he is given Hebrew letters with honey on them so he can taste how sweet the word of God is. After careful instruction, seven- or eight-year-old boys lead the synagogue congregation in the An’im zemirot, “Let me chant sweet hymns,” a twelfth-century celebration of the glory and transcendence of God.
Finally, at his bar mitzvah, a ceremony developed in the Middle Ages to counter pressures for conversion to Christianity, a boy becomes an adult Jewish man, with responsibility for fulfilling all the commands of the law. For public prayer, a minyan is required: ten adult Jewish men. Only men could become rabbis and cantors and study Torah.
Reform Judaism Emerges
But after the French Revolution, European Jews began a process of adapting to local cultures. Jewish leaders in Germany remodeled Judaism after the form of Christianity that they saw around them: a religion of feeling, domesticity, and femininity. Jewish families began to imitate the modern families of European liberals, in which men took care of the public sphere of business and politics, while women were responsible for the domestic sphere, including religion. Reform rabbis modernized Judaism by abolishing required circumcision and by replacing or supplementing the bar mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony that was open to both males and females. The first Jewish confirmation was in 1803; the first confirmation of girls was in 1814. This was a radical change from male-centered Judaism.
This Reform Judaism came to the United States and flourished; if Eastern European Jews arrived Orthodox, they often soon became Reform. By 1880, 90 percent of American synagogues were Reform. Conservative Judaism also arose in the United States as a way between Reform and Orthodoxy.
Jewish women took to higher education, but in general, they continued to return to family and private life until the mid-twentieth century. Being highly educated, these women also set up an extraordinary complex of Jewish volunteer organizations, including Hadassah. Following the Christian pattern, in middle-class Jewish families, writes historian Paula Hyman in Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History, the “regular expression of Jewishness was increasingly relegated to the female domain of the home and specifically identified with women.” This was a radical change from traditional Judaism.
Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, Jewish women began taking jobs outside the home. Many were influenced by the egalitarian feminism of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. At present, the majority of Jewish women work outside the home.
Although it had roots in 1920s American Reform Judaism, it was not until the 1960s that the bat mitzvah for girls became standard in Conservative synagogues. Reform and Conservative Judaism also began ordaining women rabbis, Reform in 1972 and Conservative in 1985. Their motives for doing so were egalitarian, but because in the surrounding culture religion was the business of women, liberal synagogues followed in one generation the path that Christian churches had followed over centuries: women went to synagogue, and men stayed away.
The Feminization of Liberal Judaism
Thus, today, as Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin asserts, “the great, unspoken crisis facing modern Judaism is the disengagement of men in large numbers.” Salkin has noticed that 90 percent of the worshipers in his own synagogue are women over the age of 60. The predominance of women is also evident among the young. In Reform youth groups, girls outnumber boys in proportions ranging from 57 to 78 percent.
Noam Nuesner, a journalist and former political speechwriter for George W. Bush, laments that “in the Reform and Conservative movements, Jewish men are increasingly abandoning their responsibilities to be men, as understood by Jewish law and tradition. They are just giving up.”
Why have Jewish men abandoned liberal Judaism? Because liberal Judaism chose to follow the Christian model of public masculine life and domestic feminine life, though the process took a few generations to complete. In 1935 in New York, 10.8 percent of Jewish boys and 6.6 percent of Jewish girls attended synagogue weekly, a sex ratio that was reversed among Christians. But today, in the twenty-first century, females outnumber males in youth groups and congregations. Not only that, but the majority of new synagogue leaders are women. At the Reform seminary in 2008, 60 percent of the rabbinical students and 84 percent of cantorial students were female. In 2009, of the 43 newly ordained Reform rabbis, 39 were women.
As the liberal synagogue becomes more feminine, Jewish boys, who are establishing their masculine identity in contrast to the feminine world, increasingly reject involvement with Jewish life. (This is the reverse of the pattern in Orthodox Judaism, in which becoming observant is a way of attaining masculinity.) In addition, the feminization of the synagogue means that women have taken over the role of transmitting Jewish life and traditions. Because Reform laity let the rabbi handle Jewish learning, and because more and more rabbis are women, Reform men, who are not skilled in Jewish rituals and learning, feel awkward in the presence of women who are skilled, giving them yet another reason to disconnect from synagogue life.
Too Late to Go Back
Reform Jews have noticed the lack of men and realize what it portends for the future. Sylvia Barack Fishman and Daniel Parmer of Brandeis University, in their study Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life, make these points:
• Liberal synagogues and temples have become “the world of our mothers.” Women comprise many of the rabbis, cantors, and synagogue presidents, and the majority of worshipers.
Thus, Reform Judaism, having adopted the liberal Protestant model of religion, is reaping the fruits of that model: men stay as far away as they can from religious activities, leaving women to be the main transmitters of Jewish religious tradition. And not only do the men not go to synagogue, they also do not marry Jewish women, thereby creating a demographic crisis for the liberal Jewish community. Well over half of Reform Jewish men marry non-Jews, and their children are then lost to Judaism, because Jewish descent is traced through the mother.
The way back to a balance of the sexes is not clear. The small movement of Modern Orthodoxy lets women perform all the roles not specifically forbidden them by the law, but Reform Judaism has already gone much further than this and would never consider going back even that far. In general, once an area of life has been identified as largely feminine, it is hard to get men interested in it.
The Future in Orthodoxy
In Jewish Orthodoxy, religion remains a masculine affair. Among married Orthodox couples, nine out of ten men attend synagogue weekly, but only four out of ten women do. That is because most women are at home, caring for their numerous children. Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary summarizes the situation: “As against the overall average of 1.86 children per Jewish woman, an informed estimate gives figures ranging upward from 3.3 children in ‘modern Orthodox’ families to 6.6 in Haredi or ‘ultra-Orthodox’ families to a whopping 7.9 in families of Hasidim.”
Because Jewishness is a mixed ethnic-religious category, population estimates vary. Of the five million or so Jews in the United States, about 10 percent are Orthodox. But of those who attend synagogue, 22 percent are Orthodox; among those aged 18 to 24 who attend synagogue, 34 percent are Orthodox; and among children who attend, the majority are Orthodox. As sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College put it, “Among Jews in their 50s, for every 100 Orthodox adults, we have 192 Orthodox children. And for the non-Orthodox, for every 100 adults, we have merely 55 such children.” Over each succeeding generation, the Orthodox population will double, and the non-Orthodox population will halve. Male presence in a religious community and the fertility rate in that community seem to be closely connected.
Liberal Jews do not want to go back to the male-centered Orthodoxy that their ancestors rejected, so the future of Judaism in the United States will pass through the Orthodox community, though not all Orthodox children will remain so in adulthood. Some may find the burden of Orthodoxy too great, yet wish to retain some connection with Judaism, as happened in the nineteenth century.
Among these, Reform Judaism is more likely to appeal to the girls than the boys. A girl who grows up Orthodox may find the feminized atmosphere of liberal Judaism congenial. But if even a boy who grows up Reform cannot abide the feminized atmosphere of liberal Judaism, it is highly unlikely that one who grows up Orthodox will feel at home in such a milieu. So Reform Judaism may become, like some liberal Protestant denominations, a shrinking women’s club that does not reproduce itself but that is occasionally replenished by women leaving more conservative backgrounds. •
Sources of Statistics
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“Reformed to Death” first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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